Marthe de Florian's Paris

Her flat was in the ninth arrondissement, on the Right Bank, near the Opéra Garnier, Folies-Bergères, and Pigalle red light district. This was your colorful Paris, your Paris of writers and artists and filmmakers. All the intellect and debauchery one might want.

Marthe de Florian lived during the Belle Époque (French for “beautiful era”), the so-called gilded age between the end of the Franco-Prussian War and the start of World War I.

It was a period of optimism, peace, technology, and, perhaps most importantly, the flourishing of literature, music, and the arts. Names such as Zola and Monet and Matisse and Picasso came to prominence as well as Giovanni Boldini, the most renowned portraitist in his day. You were not anyone unless Boldini painted you. He, the Master of Swish, lover of the woman he painted, the woman in pink: Marthe de Florian.

Though Marthe was what we’d consider a courtesan, the more accurate title was demimondaine, which translates to “half-world.” Other names included mesdemoiselles les cocottes and grandes horizontales. As one character says, “In Paris even the hookers are fancy.”

Marthe was no ordinary hooker, however. The era had its common prostitutes, the filles soumises (translation: submissive whores). Above them were les grisettes, usually working women, dressmakers and such, who used sex to supplement their incomes. Yet another level up were les lorettes. And then there were les demimondaines, like Marthe, a very singular breed.

Demimondaines were known for their extravagant lifestyles, provided of course by a string of wealthy and well-known lovers. Their clothing was envied by every woman in Paris. Even the wealthiest high society matrons could not compete sartorially (after all, they only had one “husband” supplying the goods; the demimondaines had many), though they tried. Demimondaines were also renowned for drinking, drug use, gambling, and excessive spending–particularly on clothes. Despite their status they remained forever on the outside, perhaps the “half-world” designation quite telling of their station.

The Gilded Age came to a grinding halt with WWI. Parisians were initially ecstatic when Germany declared war. They’d already invaded French territory twice and the declaration forced the Germans to take a formal stance of aggression. In addition, the French thought they’d finally avenge the Franco-Prussian War. The minute the news hit the wires people were dancing in the streets. Parties erupted in cafés, dance halls, and public squares. The crowds were enormous. People rode in carriages and atop white horses. They wept for joy, unaware the good times were over, the beautiful era now in their pasts.

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